House, Senate defense committees take aim at Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding plan

Defense lawmakers are back in Washington after a two-week hiatus and are taking square aim at the Navy's new shipbuilding plan. 

Both House and Senate defense committees have called senior Navy and Marine Corps brass to Capitol Hill to defend the newly-minted ship strategy. 

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The shipbuilding plan has faced scrutiny ever since details of the strategy were sent to Congress in March.

Members of the Senate Armed Services seapower subcommittee plan to press Navy leaders for more details of the plan on Thursday.

Specifically, subpanel members will want explanations from the heads of the services' acquisition and operations directorates on how the shipbuilding strategy ties into the service's overarching fiscal 2013 budget plan. 

However, service leaders will likely face a much tougher line of questioning on the plan from House lawmakers on Wednesday. 

The committee's oversight and investigations panel plan to dig into the Navy's ship strategy, particularly on whether the long-term assumptions made in the strategy pose any risk to national security. 

The oversight subpanel's jurisdiction includes "inquiries into allegations of waste, fraud, abuse, and wrongdoing and inefficiencies within the Department of Defense," according to the House committee's website. 

The House oversight subcommittee called hearings on Navy shipbuilding last June and Wednesday's hearing will be a continuation of that, according to a House spokesperson. 

"With defense spending under the microscope, planning is more important than ever," the spokesperson said.

The subpanel "is exerting oversight on learning more about how the 30-year plan is crafted . . . especially as focus shifts to the Asia-Pacific region," the spokesperson added. 

House lawmakers have already begun to review the Navy's plan to retire seven warships ahead of schedule. Those retirements are considered key to the success of the new ship plan. 

The Navy and Marine Corps have also reportedly scheduled a senior-level meeting in the coming weeks to discuss the strategy as the services start to look ahead to the fiscal '14 budget cycle. 

The shipbuilding strategy has the fleet topping out at 300 warships over the next five years, but that number could drop if anticipated funding levels set by Congress fall off track. 

In previous shipbuilding plans, the Navy has called for a minimum fleet of 313 ships. 

Under the new plan, the Navy will field a total of 66 submarines, 11 aircraft carriers and 32 amphibious landing ships as part of that 300-vessel fleet. 

That submarine force will be a mix of ballistic and cruise missile subs, including the new nuclear-powered Virginia-class boat and the Ohio-class replacement submarine, dubbed the SSBN-X.

Those vessels will be supported by 145 large and small multi-mission warships, such as the Littoral Combat Ship. 

Navy leaders plan to spend an average of $15.1 billion per year over the five-year plan to build up to the 300-ship force.

But Vice Admiral William Burke, head of operations for warfare systems, told Congress the plan falls short of requirements set by combat commanders around the world. 

The Navy needs at least 500 ships to meet commanders' needs as the Defense Department sets its sights on the Pacific, Burke said in a March 22 hearing of the House Armed Services readiness subcommittee. 

The Navy and Marine Corps have also been at odds over which ships should be included in the plan. 

Navy leaders have focused on bolstering the submarine fleet and maintaining 11 carrier strike groups in the fleet. 

The Marine Corps have been pushing for 38 amphibious ships to support ship-to-shore operations. The 300-ship plan dropped that number down to 30, which won't be hit until sometime in 2016. 

The smaller-sized fleet also won't be enough to sustain the U.S. shipbuilding industrial base, lawmakers have argued.  

"Is [the plan] right for the Navy and is it right for the industrial base? I'm concerned at all those different levels, our capabilities both on the defensive side and our industrial base capabilities," Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) told Navy leaders during a March 28 hearing. 

Wittman is the chairman of the oversight and investigations House defense subpanel holding Wednesday's hearing. 

But Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the strategy will provide adequate support for U.S. defense industry firms, despite the 300-ship cap. 

"I want to maintain our industrial base for the future so that we can produce the ships we need for the future.  And I want to do it in American shipyards," he said on April 2. 

"I don't want to do it abroad . . . and we're committed to this," Panetta added.